Program expands access to fresh produce

Program expands access to fresh produce

The federal government aimed to help low-income shoppers avoid the stigma of welfare when it told states to replace food stamps with cards that resemble debit cards.

But Emily Schmidlapp, who works for a local non-profit organization that caters to the poor,said that the equipment needed to process these cards is too expensive for community markets.

“So, when that change happened, all of a sudden people couldn’t use their food stamps at farmers markets anymore, which was a shame because that’s often where the healthiest, freshest and most affordable food is,” she said. 

Among this season’s fruits and vegetables at Pittsburgh Citiparks Farmers Markets, shoppers found a new booth that functions as the markets’ ATM, at which market-goers can tell an attendant how much they would like to spend.

Then, the attendant swipes their card for the specified amount and distributes wooden tokens for the shopper to spend at the other vendors’ booths.

According to the Pittsburgh Food Bank, more than 160,000 people in Allegheny County were receiving benefits under the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), which is ran by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and replaced the old food stamps program in January of 2013.

Under the Fresh Access program, which local nonprofit Just Harvest launched last summer, SNAP beneficiaries can buy tokens at the market that they can redeem like cash.

Schmidlapp, who oversees the Fresh Access program, said she started volunteering at the nonprofit in January of 2012 and started working there last April.  

She began gathering information about similar programs in other cities and, using knowledge gained through her work with the Farmers at Firehouse Market — which started accepting EBT cards last year — created a plan to institute the Fresh Access Program on a larger scale. 

The Fresh Access program started at the Citiparks markets on the North Side and East Liberty. After the program was successful, the organization expanded it to four additional markets. The Citiparks market in the Downtown neighborhood is the only one that does not use the Fresh Access because most of the items there qualify as prepared food, which SNAP benefits do not cover. 

Schmidlapp said Just Harvest chose the Citiparks markets because they are the largest group of markets under the same management.

“It’s giving people the opportunity and the option to have fresh, healthy food available to them that they didn’t have before,” said Carly Cottone, a Pitt senior majoring in social work and an intern at Just Harvest.  

The Fresh Access program will also cultivate healthier diets. 

Cottone  said that the Fresh Access Program helps to alleviate food deserts,  or low-income areas where stores often do not carry fresh foods.  This, she said, means that the program helps to provide low-income Pittsburgh residents with more access to fruits, vegetables, meat and eggs.

Christopher Keane, a professor in Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health, said that “low income” correlates with “lower intake,” highlighting the need for programs like Fresh Access.

““It is important to find strategies that will increase consumption among that group,” he said in an email. 

He said empirical evidence suggests programs that subsidize fruit and vegetable consumption can be effective. 

According to a 2008 study using data on recipients of the Women, Infants and Children program, women who received a fruit-and-vegetable subsidy ate more fruits and vegetables.

While that may seem intuitively obvious, the results showed that women who received the subsidy continued to eat healthier in the six months after they stopped receiving the subsidies. 

Margaret Schlass, the owner and founder of One Woman Farm, began growing food five years ago in the Pittsburgh suburbs of Valencia and Gibsonia. She sells her certified-organic produce at the East Liberty Farmers Market.

Her stall cooperates with the new program, and she’s seen positive results because of the increased number of customers, as well as the ease of swiping.  

She said that the Fresh Access program creates a win-win situation for everyone involved at the markets because farmers would not ordinarily receive business from SNAP recipients. 

“They can get a lot of bang for their buck right here at the farmers market,” Schlass said, referring to shoppers who utilize the new program. “Their food dollars stay directly in our community and you create personal relationships with them, so it’s a really nice exchange.”

Aeros Lillstrom and Chris Brittenburg own Who Cooks For You Farm, a family farm in New Bethlehem, Pa. The couple sells their organic fruits, vegetables and herbs at the East Liberty Farmers Market.

Lillstrom said the program has stimulated business.

“[Fresh Access] is diverse in its treatment of being accessible to anyone who needs it,” Lillstrom said. “It’s only enriching to bring in more diversity to the market.”